Bragging rights

Saskatchewan’s future, like that of its premier, is wide open

Bragging rightsThe province of Saskatchewan, which proudly holds down the far side of the gap between the self-satisfied East (Ontario) and the over-confident West (Alberta), is dismissed by most of Toronto’s hard-core literati as “flyover country.” They see it as a place out of mind and beyond prime time, irrelevant to their chi-chi Perrier agendas, peremptorily excluded from the larger scheme of things.

That’s a shame, because while they weren’t watching, Saskatchewan became the country’s fastest-growing province. The size of Texas, it contains close to half of Canada’s arable acreage and now tops the post-auto-pact remnants of Central Canada in almost every category—except smugness.

I recently spent most of an afternoon with Brad Wall, its 43-year-old hotshot premier whose recent past is impressive, and whose future—should he decide to exercise his Prairie tongue by learning to conjugate irregular French verbs and go federal—could be unlimited. A political firecracker, he has run the province as efficiently as a Wal-Mart franchise since he brought his conservative Saskatchewan Party to power in November 2007.

As hyperactive as a daytime game show host, he lacks the gravitas of a political heavyweight, but talks and acts like a big hitter, which he will one day become. Meanwhile, he’s a homebody who commutes daily to and from his family homestead in Swift Current, a two-hour drive each way from Regina.

His economic revolution that has transformed the province from a backwater into a winner impresses by almost every measure: at the moment, Saskatchewan boasts the lowest unemployment rate and is expected to have the highest average salary increases in the country next year. The Wall government reports it has cut the provincial debt by $2.5 billion (or 40 per cent), and provincial GDP for 2010 is expected to jump by 3.9 per cent, compared to 0.9 per cent for Canada as a whole. The U.S. buys more oil from the province than from Kuwait, and Saskatchewan is the world’s largest producer of two of nature’s most saleable commodities: uranium and fertilizer potash.

Despite the province’s boom, it currently has 10,000 white-collar job vacancies, and Wall has tried to bridge the gap by offering a $20,000 rebate on university fees for incoming recent graduates who promise to stay in the province for seven years. (Prospective applicants should note that January temperatures average nine below. “But it’s a dry cold,” Wall hastens to add.)

Wall’s most imaginative venture is the $1.4-billion refit of a coal-fired electrical generating station, which will use a unique carbon-capture technology that will store its carbon dioxide emissions underground, much like a research facility in Weyburn is already doing with greenhouse gases piped in from North Dakota. He is also sponsoring the development of nuclear technology to replace the burning of natural gas in the production of tar-sands oil. “I don’t think that you’ll find another jurisdiction that’s prepared to make the investment that we have signalled we are going to make in protection of the environment,” he contends.

Wall won praise from all quarters for refusing to condemn the government led by former NDP premier Lorne Calvert, who preceded him. On the contrary, he praised Calvert, especially for his environmental innovations, as well as occasionally praising Roy Romanow, another socialist predecessor, for cleaning up the province’s finances. “We should be in the business of trying to surprise people,” he told me. “People have an ugly stereotype of us as politicians and we have earned it, but now we have a chance of being reasonable, and give credit where credit is due.”

That attitude of limited but genuine inter-party co-operation, so rare in Canadian politics, won the support of voters. In the November 2007 election, Wall earned a turnout of 76 per cent, compared with 51 per cent in B.C. in 2009, where the provincial government still plays the blame game. “One of the problems with the rules of our legislatures is that you can be kicked out for calling a member a liar, yet you can lie,” Wall points out.

He is the first of a generation of New Politics provincial premiers who shudder at the toxic atmosphere of the federal Parliament. Brad Wall is just starting his run, but already he has earned the title of the country’s least angry Tory.

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